I wasn’t too impressed with Maria Aberg’s production of Webster’s The White Devil at the RSC two years ago, and I went into this Faustus expecting more of the same: a modern show with an experimental edge on the surface that sounded exactly like every other RSC production if you closed your eyes, with actors that snapped into the good old RSC mode of doing things as soon as they opened their mouths. Instead, what I got was a show with a clear perspective, pursuing an idea with impressive single-mindedness, carving its performance text out of Marlowe’s play, focussed not on transporting that work of dramatic literature but on turning it into a stage event, interested less in storytelling (whatever that may be) and depending much more on the presence and movement of actors’ bodies in space and time. Unlike with Aberg’s earlier work, here, the anti-conventional spirit animates all aspects of the enterprise: if I had closed my eyes during this show, I would have wondered why there was so much silence.

There isn’t much of a set: the backstage wall is a translucent tarp, and the stage is cluttered with banged-up file boxes and textbooks. Two men in black suits enter (parenthetically: why are costumer designers still stuck in the Reservoir Dogs aesthetic? Why does that still resonate?), come to face each other centre stage, pick up matchboxes, strike a match each, and watch. Once one goes out, they put the matches down in cup; the man whose match burned longer exits. The other takes off his jacket and tie: he is Faustus. (On any given night, he might end up being Mephistopheles: Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan take turns, and apparently don’t know until they see their matches which role they are going to play. I saw Grierson’s Faustus.)

Terrible photo: Faustus's study before all hell breaks loose. Or reveals itself as having always-already broken loose.

Terrible photo: Faustus’s study before all hell breaks loose. Or reveals itself as having always-already broken loose.

What follows is a fairly standard reading of the opening soliloquy, and it wasn’t until after Grierson was done with the speech and the meeting with Valdes and Cornelius that I got out my notebook. Because this happened: he takes a box cutter (which, like the match boxes keeps coming back; Aberg is working with a small set of mundane but recurrent props), slices open the tarp, and proceeds to chuck box after box through the hole into the backstage space. For minutes. In silence. At one point, he takes a break and a swig from a vodka bottle that will also keep reappearing. Then he opens up five boxes that are left, arranging them in a loose circle, and lights burners inside them. Then he takes off his shirt, dips it in a bucket of paint, and draws a huge circle and pentagram on the stage floor — filling pretty much two-thirds of the Swan’s thrust. For minutes. And all we get to do is watch, and watch, and watch: watch an actor — sure, a character, too, but really: an actor — move around in space, doing stuff, with purpose and energy. And not saying a word. How often does that happen on English stages? And how often does it happen in productions of classics written (mostly) in verse? I was transfixed.

And then Faustus starts to chant. It’s just a few syllables of (bad, I gather) Hebrew. He reads them from a little book. Haltingly. He keeps checking the book as he goes. He’s a novice, after all. And then, as his voice rises, more confident now, a second, lower, richer voice answers from back stage. It’s a swelling chorus. It doesn’t mean anything. It goes on and on. And it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve witnessed in a theatre (or anywhere else) in a long time. In fact, as I was sitting there, surrounded by a thoroughly modern, civilized, probably largely secular audience, watching this completely modern performance, from my own comfortably secular viewing perspective, I felt a kind of terror that made me see that all those reports about devils being actually conjured during performances of Faustus made perfect sense. One could quibble in all sorts of ways with that staging decision: but for me, it was extraordinarily effective — and not really deflated at all by Mephistopheles’s appearance, dressed in a white suit, shirtless, strolling casually down from the back wall, entering through the hole in the tarp.

What happens next rather sets up the difference between Aberg’s version and Marlowe’s: Faustus doesn’t command Mephistopheles to leave and return in a different shape. But she retains Faustus’s lines about the devil’s “obedience and humility” — even though there is nothing humble about this Mephistopheles. Instead, the lines reveal Faustus’s own inflated sense of power; and they establish that the human in the scene is never in charge or control, no matter what he may think. Before Mephistopheles exits to let Lucifer know of Faustus’s intent, he pokes at his chest and keeps looking at his finger as he exits — as though he had just snatched something precious from Faustus; and Grierson suddenly looks unsure of himself, fingering the spot the devil proved as if he had already lost part of himself.

At that point, the good and evil angels appear, and the theme of the entire show becomes clear: neither looks especially angelic; both have black wings and the same zombified features as everyone but Faustus and Mephistopheles. Aberg evidently takes her cue from the devil: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it” — and neither is anyone else. Good and evil aren’t polar opposites in this production. A choice between the two barely seems available anymore: the only figure who’s not visually aligned with hell in the play is Wagner, here not Faustus’s corrupt student/servant, but an expansion of Marlowe’s saintly Old Man. Faustus, then, doesn’t so much choose evil as embrace the inevitable — and if he finds no comfort or peace in that decision, that’s because there is no comfort nor peace in the world of this show. It may be a bit odd to think of a work that gives so much air time to the devil as a secular dystopia, but it seems to me that that is what Aberg has produced.

And if all the figures inhabit the same world, it only makes sense that they often harmonize with each other — lines are shared, spoken in chorus, movements are coordinated and shade into choreography, entire groups of characters suddenly freeze and stand shaking back-and-forth like Second Life avatars, Faustus’s lines are picked up by and completed by the Good and Evil Angels, and so on. Space is similarly unified: Faustus, in a sense, never leaves his study — the circle always remains in place, and his travels with Mephistopheles may not in fact take them outside the study either, where they are recorded as chalk scribblings on the floor. At first, this threw me: everything happened so quickly, and the different locations were noted so perfunctorily that my initial impulse was to think that the travelogue wasn’t working. But then I realized that it wasn’t supposed to work: that either the man and the devil weren’t really travelling at all, or that even if they traversed great geographical distances, they never truly moved at all: this is hell, nor are they out of it.

Not as effective were the seven deadly sins, but then I’m never that fond of that episode in the theatre. It lends itself too easily to stock tricks and gestures, and it’s a bit like that here. I wonder why Aberg didn’t cut it — after all, the very variety of the sins seems to run counter to her overall aesthetic program. What was interesting in that scene, on the other hand, was Faustus’s reaction to the spectacle: he kept checking in with Mephistopheles, almost as if to assure himself that his responses were correct, appropriate, what was expected. As with his book of incantations, Faustus here is never quite sure of himself — an eternal novice taking on a role of authority or power only to reveal immediately that he himself defers to others.

That is escalated when the two go to Rome, or when the Pope and his Friars come into the study (whichever way one might want to read this). Faustus is constantly looking for Mephistopheles’s approval as he mocks the Catholics, slapping dishes out of the hands and making noises; and when he “strikes” the Pope, he actually stabs him in the gut with the box cutter. The logic is that of a playground dare: Faustus’s violence escalates precisely because he isn’t in control, or because he can’t consistently maintain the fiction that he is. When he is making the Friars dance to a chant of “Maledicat dominus,” he stands in the centre of the circle, directing them with his arms to cavort around him and keep singing. But Mephistopheles stands off to the side, watching intently. It’s certainly clear who’s the boss there — and it seemed to me that Faustus, for all his gestures, wasn’t in fact doing anything. He was simply part of the dance that the devil was orchestrating; he differed from the Friars only in the delusion that he was their master.

These basic patterns kept repeating themselves, with visual and sonic variations, but following essentially the same logic. The Emperor and his court? Another set of zombies, the courtiers/soldiers, like the priests, wearing stockings over their faces (black rather than the Friars’ white), but accessing their vaguely SS-y uniforms with enormous red rubber gloves; the prank with the horns, like the striking of the Pope, is much more violent than the text suggests (Mephistopheles cuts them off with the box cutter, they don’t just disappear); Faustus throughout the prank keeps his eyes on his devil. And when the courtier and his friends try to avenge themselves, they not only beat Faustus up at excruciating length, they also smother him with a piece of the tarp. Arguably, that violence is no worse than Marlowe’s decapitation scene — but what follows is: Faustus, not dead, sets a pack of devils loose on the courtiers, who slowly throttle them from afar, the courtiers twitching and twisting endlessly. This, too, turns into a kind of macabre dance, again with Faustus seemingly in charge, again with Mephistopheles controlling the action from the sidelines. Elsewhere, Faustus and Mephistopheles dance together in the circle, facing each other, arms outstretched around each other’s neck — and it feels and looks like a dance equals. But then the devil withdraws, leaving Faustus dancing on his own or with, no: as, one of the other devils. Or possibly one of the devils’ victims: the choreography is decidedly ambiguous.

Whenever Faustus ends up all alone, a glimmer of a way out appears — after the murder of the courtiers, he briefly seems to wake up to what he is doing, and Wagner appears to double down on that impulse. But then the Duke of Vanholt calls, and Faustus, naturally is off to the races again. And we encounter another set of zombies, these sporting fantastic fat suits (the Duke seems closer to term than his pregnant Lady). The Lady wants grapes: Faustus draws an X on the stage, and the grapes drop from the heavens (as it were). And on it goes: the next group of zombies, Wittenberg’s students, identical to the army of devils. They want Helen. They get Helen, in the form of a projected face that fills the upstage wall.

In the absence of all the comic scenes, Faustus has no time to rest at all in this show: he runs from gig to gig, from crime to crime. There is a something relentless in this pace and in its narrative and visual repetitiveness, but it’s not a lack of ideas: it’s an insistence that all of these seemingly diverse encounters are all the same, all these characters are essentially the same, and that they are all hellish. There is no choice, there is no escape, there is no control. The circular logic of the evening mirrors that of the magic circle — but instead of catching a spirit to do his bidding, Faustus has caught himself.

Aberg’s working with a radically compressed text, but it’s not that she has simply replaced words with movement — this isn’t Faustus as dance or Faustus as musical theatre. Rather, the longest purely physical sequences seem to respond to Marlowe’s minimal stage directions: they take those gaps the text leaves for action seriously and fill them with performance that works hand-in-hand with the text, illuminates it, expands it, complicates it. The most remarkable of those sequences is the second appearance of Helen: for Faustus himself. This time, she is not just a video image, she has a body. And it is that of a young, a very young girl. Confronted with this Helen, Faustus has no words: Mephistopheles instead speaks the lines about the face that launched a thousand ships, in a questioning tone at first, keeping his eyes glued to Faustus’s face, then with more of an edge. The child and Faustus approach each other in the circle, then she pushes him back; they circle each other, then she suddenly jumps up and wraps her legs around his body. He hugs her close. It’s not quite a sexual encounter: there is a parental quality to it, too, as if Faustus had just come back from the war. But then she puts her hands on his face, and he crumples, apparently in anguish. She touches her own face the same way. She takes Faustus’s hands and puts them around her neck; she makes him throttle her, makes him shake her like a rag doll. And as this brutally dark pas-de-deux unfolds, it becomes less a dance on the edge of pedophilia and more a demonstration that despite the apparent dynamics of the encounter, it is the child-shaped spirit that is in charge: she controls Faustus (and Mephistopheles presumably controls her), she directs his movements (which mirror or follow hers), and although what she makes him do seemingly turns her into a doll, it is in fact he that is the real marionette. At which point she withdraws from their dance to join Mephistopheles, and as Faustus keeps running inside the circle, repeating the gestures and movements she has given him, beating his head, the two spirits leave, side by side.

Faustus knows now that he is caught: he rubs and scrapes away at the magic circle, but he can’t make it disappear. His final, tortured soliloquy may appear like yet another reiteration of the theme Aberg has now so fully established, but she delivers a final twist — in a moment that highlighted a feature of Marlowe’s text for me despite this productions apparent distance from its author’s script. What does Faustus ultimately long for? What would save him? It’s not mercy. It’s not salvation. Faustus’s deepest desire is not to have a soul at all.

There’s something quite unsettling (if possibly theologically and philosophically circular) about this show’s vision of good and evil: to the extent that it imagines a world beyond this one, it is a world every bit as dark and corrupt. If there is an afterlife, it seems simply to be a continuation of the rotten life that came before it. Aberg might be trying to have her cake and eat it: what I earlier described as a secular dystopia might be more like a world in which some kind of divinity exists, but it’s the devil rather than god. Evil has no counterpart in divine good. If there were no “beyond,” after all, Faustus could just end things — but he can’t, because he has a soul, and souls have afterlives. His choice, then, is between being in hell and alive, and being in hell but dead.

Which, needless to say, isn’t much of a choice. And when he tries to assert some sort of agency at the last, takes the box cutter Mephistopheles offers and doesn’t cut his own arm (again), but rams it into Mephistopheles’s chest instead, inevitability wins anyway. Because it’s not the devil that bleeds: it’s Faustus’s own chest. And as he lies bleeding, and Mephistopheles walks away, the lights dim.

It would be too easy, I think, to read the show’s logic as that of a psychomachia: Aberg hasn’t staged the struggle of or within Faustus’s soul. It’s not an allegory. Instead, without resolving the question of whether evil is a supernatural force or if “the devil” is just another term for “the human,” her final gesture there seems to imply that evil can’t be killed. That if we try to cut out evil, we only end up cutting out our own heart. (In that sense, the final moment echoes the first: drawing a line between human and devil is arbitrary and ultimately futile. They’re the same. But on any given night, one might act as the other.)

I’m thinking out aloud now (too many shows, too little time to think anything through…); but I am struck by the degree to which “evil” can be separated from supernatural categories in Aberg’s production. Doing bad things gives Faustus a kind of power, certainly a kind of rush, but it also turns him into a slave to evil. But in that, he seems simply more extreme than the other figures in the show, all of whom are creatures of evil in one way or another, from the leering students to the murderous courtiers (and more obviously, the devils and spirits). Faustus embraces evil more fully, and ultimately tries to deny its hold on him more forcefully than anyone else in the play, and he dies for it. That he doesn’t appear to go to hell — that he doesn’t appear to go anywhere — may just mean that he was wrong about the soul. The point, then, I suppose would be that we are all more or less nasty, ineluctably — and to make things worse, we have somehow convinced ourselves that our earthly tendency towards nastiness will have consequences after we die. That may be a false conviction, but so is the idea that we could just stop being nasty without also stopping to exist.

But then there’s Old Man Wagner. Either a figure of improbable hope, or the singular decent person who makes everybody else look that much nastier.

I’ll end my ramblings there. It’s not often that a show makes me try so hard to puzzle out its ideas — and it’s even rarer for a show, especially in this country, to make such an effort to turn ideas into a fully embodied performance (rather than simply spoken words). Because that remains the key thing about this Faustus and what will stay with me: how much it relied on actors moving in space, spending a lot of time and energy doing things with their bodies, over and over again, as bodies — not simply as speaking things. Whatever else she has done or failed to do, Maria Aberg has turned Marlowe’s play into a real work of theatre. I’d never ask for more.

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